Cover Story: Is the FBI Up to the Job 10 Years After 9/11?

Inside Bob Mueller's 10-year campaign to fix the FBI

  • Photograph by Marco Grob for TIME

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    Before the Feb. 17 session, each SAC reported his assessment of top threats and accomplishments in counterterrorism, counterintelligence, cyber- and criminal operations. Baltimore ranked "al-Qaeda/Sunni" extremists as its most lethal threat, while Newark put down "homegrown Sunni extremists" and Boston the "self-radicalized, globally inspired." Philadelphia foresaw emerging threats from foreign spies looking to steal nanotechnology research. Mueller hammers on his SACs to justify these assessments and share the evidence with other agencies. If a field office has been stingy with intelligence-information reports (IIRs), which circulate around the government, former assistant FBI director John Miller says, the SAC will face relentless questioning. Mueller, he says, asks: "Is it that your sources don't have much information ... or is it that you're getting good information and your agents aren't bothering to write up IIRs?"

    At that, Miller says, "you see that SAC sit there uncomfortably and try to decide what he wants to admit."

    Mueller says later, poker-faced, that "it's probably been a growth experience for some SACs."

    That afternoon Mueller directed an opening shot at Philadelphia "because I don't like the Phillies' pitching rotation." A Red Sox fan, Mueller has been known to consult Major League Baseball's At Bat app on his iPad during lunch.

    Harrington, the FBI's No. 3, says softly, "Get ready." Mueller had spent hours reviewing line graphs and pie charts of results against resources for each field office. His jokes were often a barometer of mood.

    SAC George Venizelos described a gang-control initiative in Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Already there had been 58 arrests. Mueller's left eyebrow climbed.

    "How are you measuring positive community impact?" he asked. Venizelos kicked the question to John Cosenza, his No. 2. "Initially, when you go in and make arrests, you can create more crime — territorial, people coming in and trying to take over," Cosenza said. "Hopefully, some of the crime statistics will get lower."

    Hopefully. Mueller turned away. Boston (gang violence) and Baltimore (armed robbery) sounded much the same.

    Michael Ward in Newark had results. He had come to the aid of local police when carjackings spiked 2,000% in Newark and Trenton, N.J., and his measure of impact was "a reduction in the carjacking rate." He threw 30 to 40 agents at the problem and brought the numbers back down.

    Mueller's fingers drummed. He shifted in his seat. Carjackings? Weeks later, Ward says he doesn't know "how it registered at headquarters," but he defends his work as a model of "how you're supposed to deal with emerging threats." Mueller, looking back, says, "I learned a lot that day in terms of what was happening in Trenton." It is good to lend a hand to local police, but carjacking "is not one of the top priorities." Mueller says he is still "trying to drive out ... the usual metric of arrests, indictments and convictions by numbers."

    In the moment, there was nothing Mueller wanted to say to Ward with a reporter in the room. Shortly afterward, Mueller looked at his watch, looked at me and looked pointedly at the door.

    "O.K.," he said. "We're going to turn to national security in 15 seconds."

    Mueller's interrogation of SACs, according to David Schlendorf, the FBI's assistant director for resource planning, arose from a frustrated question: "How do I, as one person, pull the levers so that 35,000 people do what I want them to do?" Schlendorf embodies a startling invasion of private-sector managers into Mueller's FBI. He arrived as a special assistant in 2003 with a Harvard MBA and was amazed to discover that he had to walk down the hall to find the Internet. Within five years, he had leapfrogged a generation of agents to the FBI's top executive ranks.

    Mueller wants more like him and makes regular recruiting trips to business schools. Their graduates have brought modern office tools to an FBI that still cannot buy a box of pencils without filling out Form FD 369 in quintuplicate — using carbon paper. They also brought exotic business jargon and a four-color FBI strategy map of arrows chasing ovals. Outsiders displaced agents with badges and guns as assistant directors in charge of finance, human resources, information technology and the directorate of weapons of mass destruction.

    Mueller spurred the change of guard with an up-or-out rule for field supervisors. Hundreds retired, quit or were removed from their posts, an enormous loss of collective memory. "These were people who knew their craft very well," says Konrad Motyka, president of the FBI Agents Association. "There are certain things the field knows and certain things headquarters knows, and sometimes they don't exactly mesh." The old guard calls Mueller's rising stars the "blue flamers," which is not a compliment. Schlendorf was equally undiplomatic. "To use a loaded term, the legacy employees — sometimes we've had an issue where they might be threatened by the younger, newer generation, more tech-savvy," he says. "So that's been a challenge. But we need to be competing with Google, with GE, for the best talent."

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